많이먹어라…

Sometimes, you just have to wonder what makes people behave the way they do.

When I arrived at the professors’ cafeteria this evening for dinner, I noticed this weird-looking guy staring at me constantly as I made my way up the line, adding food to my tray. When I’d finished, I stopped to get a cup of water, and by then he was staring directly at me. I noticed that he had a face like, well, like a slab of tenderized beef… meaning, I think the man had partaken in more than his fair share of fisticuffs. And, of course, he was staring at me alone.

Sometimes really wish I wasn’t the only “foreigner” in the room.

As I walked past, he locked eyes with me and said, in what struck me a rather aggressive tone, “야… 많이먹어라… 많이먹어라…” Which translates as, “Hey you… eat up! Eat up!” (Literally, it’s “Hey you, eat a lot, eat a lot!” except that it’s so informal that one would never use it to a stranger, or at least that’s what I’ve been taught. But I say this also because of the look in his eye, which was somewhat passive-aggressive, or even resentful. He was talking to me the way one talks to a child, or to his direct inferior, and making no secret of his disdain for me, a disdain that welled up from who-knows-where.

I made my way to the farthest table away from him that I could find, and then kicked myself, realizing I’d forgotten to get some soup, so I slipped past him again, feeling his eyes but avoiding his gaze. Yet when I passed again, looking in the other direction, I heard him — even louder this time — grunting “야! 많이먹어! 많이먹어라…”

I pretended not to notice him, hoping he’d take the hint, but by that point, he was staring at me continually. The only time I looked over furtively was in the short moments when he forced his way into the conversation of some nearby students, but most of the time, I was the only person in the room for him.

And when he got up to leave, he made a beeline straight to me and slowed his pace so that he could look me straight in the eye, growling, “많이먹어… 많이먹어…” over and over as he passed by. I swear, the look on his face was bordering on threatening by that point, and I swear, if this had not happened at my workplace, I would have torn into him in Korea, asking him why the hell he was talking to me in 반말 (informal speech) and why he was grunting the same thing at me a dozen times with such an angry face.

I know it would have been a bad idea, especially with a guy like this, who, frankly, reminded me more than anything of the gangsters I’d crossed paths with in Iksan: a sullen face, pockmarked; his clothes that were good enough to be putting on airs of being a grown-up professional, but too cheap and ugly for him to be an educated professional.

But it’s really grating when some guy takes out his random personal frustrations and his inferiority complex on you, growling at you in rude language — assuming you can’t understand him — and all but demands your immediate attention, regardless of what you happen to be doing or whether you feel like interacting with him, because you’re the only white person in the room.

And the really infuriating part is when this happens while you’re at your workplace and have no idea what department the guy’s in, whether he’s just an older student whom you can call on his behaviour, or some craptastic bureaucrat … when you can’t predict the consequences of telling him he’s behaving inappropriately (read: like an ass)… it’s all just so… not “grating,” and “annoying” is the wrong word… I think it’s mostly just absolutely infuriating. At least when it’s away from work, you can tell people to stop treating you that way, ask them to leave you alone, snap at them in Korean.

But I ended up just glancing at him, giving him a “What the fuck, dude?” look, and going back to eating. I hate feigning oblivion, though. I think next time I might just ask him why he’s talking to me that way. Because one thing I’m realizing that it’s not his behaviour that has worn on me ever since — it’s my own passive reaction, my lack of reaction, my own complicity in his treating me like crap that makes me most angry, most tired, most frustrated.

The irony? I was only just before discussing the concept of “The Other” (a la Edward Said) and watching a chunk of the Spike Lee film Bamboozled. Which had the simultaneous effect of reminding me how much worse “othering” can be, yes — a reminder that it’s not so bad when it’s just the occasional jerk, and not a whole environment of rampant misrepresentation — but also reminded me of how gleefully some people here discuss the racism of the USA while tacitly omitting any mention of what “others” experience here. (Because if this is annoying me, I can barely imagine how African, South Asian, and Southeast Asian workers here cope with their treatment.)

2 thoughts on “많이먹어라…

  1. Do you think he was mentally handicapped in any way? The way you describe his actions, he sounds like it, but the way you describe him himself, possibly working in some capacity at the university, perhaps not?

    Either way, I understand your frustrations. Fortunately, I’ve had less than a handful of similar experiences in 8 years here, and all of them by clearly mentally handicapped guys. I do have a slow temper, or at least I did before I came to live here ;) , but the people who’ve insulted and even out of nowhere suddenly punched friends of mine on the street (weakly, when drunk) when I’ve been walking with them of course didn’t know that. Somehow, abuse avoids me.

  2. James,

    I considered it at the time and decided it was unlikely. It’s possible, but he seemed more well-dressed than the average mentally handicapped adult one meets on the street, and engaged in animated interjections into others’ conversations in Korean.

    I think it’s fair to say he was speaking as if he was retarded, but I suspect it only was because he was assuming me the equivalent of a “retard,” so to speak.

    I was lucky like you until not very long ago. I used to feel mystified when people complained of such treatment, and then, suddenly, bang! it started. Hoping it stops again. At least I’ve never been punched out of the blue.

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